If all you want to do is take pictures and you don’t know much about cameras, the range of camera types on the market is bewildering. Even if you do know a bit about cameras, it’s not easy to weigh up one type against the other and make a decision about which to get.
So this article is just a simple run through of the different types of cameras, their pros and cons and how they work. It’s not an expert guide to comparing one type to another, more an overview of the whole camera market.
Smartphones can take great pictures
So many people now have smartphones or phones with cameras that this has become an almost universal tool for taking snapshots of everyday life. But smartphone camera technology has come a long way in a short time, and the latest smartphone cameras are rather good.
The sensors are still very small – typically about the same size as those in point and shoot compact cameras – but phone makers have invested heavily in lens and processing technology to make their images as good as they can be. In many instances, a good smartphone will produce better images, with more controls and more image effects than a point and shoot camera. And, of course, you can share your photos straight away.
Smartphones can also be great for video. Most can now shoot and share good quality 4K video and are popular with Instagramers and vloggers for instant sharing and live streaming.
Action cams are for life’s adventures
And then there’s a whole new camera category – action cams. These are small stills and video cameras (though mostly for video) which are often toughened up for underwater use. The video quality obviously isn’t as good as a dedicated video camera’s, but their size, simplicity and ruggedness means they’re used by both amateur and professional filmmakers to film things that were never possible before.
Action cams aren’t just for action. There are other types that use similar technology and miniaturisation to shoot all sorts of subjects.
One of the most exciting is 360 cameras. These are essentially like two action cams mounted back to back, each covering an angle of view of 180+ degrees. The camera then blends these two ‘hemispherical’ views of the world into a 360 degree image. You can capture stills or video, and viewers can either ‘immerse’ themselves in this 3D world using an app or special viewer software, or the photographer can use it to produce regular ‘flat’ panoramic images or video sequences.
The other example of action cam evolution is the drone. You can get drones without camera which are flown just for sport and amusement, but camera drones are now big business, not just as hobbyist ‘toys’ but as professional tools for photographers, videographers, film makers and extreme sports fans. Camera drones have been made possible by the small size and light weight of action cam technology.
Compact cameras and their types
New developments in smartphones and action cams have taken huge chunks out of the traditional compact camera market. Even so, there are still a wide variety to choose from and each still has advantages.
First of all, a quick definition. ‘Compact’ cameras are not necessarily small. The term has come to mean any camera with a fixed, non-removable lens. Most are small, but some are not.
People still buy compact point and shoot cameras. This market has declined massively due to the rise of smartphones, but point and shoot compacts have zoom lenses (few smartphones do), they’re relatively cheap and they have a single, clear purpose. They’re popular with families, for example.
Some of these are ‘underwater cameras’ or more expensive and advanced ‘tough cameras’ which are specially ruggedised for harsh environments.
Point and shoot cameras are designed to be cheap and simple, and this means the zoom range is relatively limited. It’s also possible to get ‘travel cameras’ with much longer zoom ranges and sometimes better sensors and camera controls. Strictly speaking they’re just long-zoom compacts, but travel is a major photographic subject these days, and these cameras offer a zoom range long enough for a wide range of subjects, in a body small enough to fit in a jacket pocket.
Bridge cameras use the same idea but in a different form. They are like a ‘bridge’ between a regular compact camera and a DSLR, offering super-long zoom ranges and DSLR style handling and controls. However, the sensors are smaller to allow for the long zoom range (and affordable pricing), so the image quality isn’t really DSLR standard.
If you are looking for DSLR quality and controls in a pocket camera, a high end compact is a better bet. These have a more modest zoom range similar to that of the kit lenses you get with DSLRs, but good-sized sensors, good lenses and more advanced camera controls.
Interchangeable lens cameras – DSLR and mirrorless
For enthusiasts, experts or anyone seriously interested in photography, an interchangeable lens camera is the best choice. Not only can you change lenses for different kinds of photography, you get bigger sensor sizes – and bigger sensors mean better image quality.
The technical term is ‘ILC (interchangeable lens camera)’, and they include DSLRs and mirrorless cameras.
For a long time the DSLR was the one and only digital camera design that offered interchangeable lenses and a through-the-lens viewing system. DSLRs are still popular today, but many users have swapped over to the newer, smaller mirrorless camera design.
Mirrorless cameras, also known as ‘compact system cameras (CSCs)’ do not have a mirror reflecting the image seen through the lens up into an optical viewfinder. Instead, the sensor is used to send a ‘live’ feed to the LCD screen on the back of the camera or, in those cameras that have them, an electronic viewfinder.
For a while, Sony experimented with an SLT (single lens translucent) design with fixed translucent mirror which reflected a percentage of the image towards the camera’s autofocus module and passed through the rest to the main sensor for the rear screen and viewfinder. These cameras are still available in small numbers but the design now looks obsolete.
DSLR and mirrorless cameras come in different categories with different sensor sizes. APS-C cameras are popular with beginners and enthusiasts because they offer a good combination of quality and value. Full frame cameras are bigger and more expensive but popular with experts and professionals. Medium format cameras have larger sensors still and prices which make them professional purchases only.
You may see the term ‘rangefinder’ used today, but the meaning has changed somewhat. Technically, it describes cameras made by Leica and others that use a rangefinder focusing system based around lining up two images of the subject seen from slightly different positions. Leica still uses this system on its M-series cameras.
Rangefinder cameras have a distinctive rectangular shape, which is now seen very often in mirrorless camera designs. These are called ‘rangefinder style’ or ‘rangefinder’ cameras simply because they have the classic ‘rangefinder’ shape. They actually use conventional autofocus systems.